Linkages & “Lackages”

The impact of declining public transit ridership on low-income populations

Morgen Ruby | December 30, 2019

Photo by Justin Main on Unsplash

Smoggy air, heavy traffic, and dangerous streets are often associated with transportation in Los Angeles. Around the world, cities are improving their urban fabric to complement the critical need for pedestrian, bike, and transit infrastructure. Public transit in other high-density cities like New York, San Francisco, and Seattle tends to be more utilized; in LA, people depend more on their cars. A 2018 study by UCLA found that “between 2000 and 2015, Southern Californians acquired vehicles at nearly four times the rate they had between 1990 and 2000.” Although LA Metro users who “strongly depend on transit” have “generally low incomes,” the study also found that car ownership among low-income populations has been increasing more than any other income group. If more people are turning towards automobiles, how can we ensure the future of public transportation for those who rely on it?

Photo by Alan Carrillo on Unsplash

Declining Interest in Transit in Los Angeles

While public transit ridership is increasing in the Bay Area and San Diego, LA’s unlinked passenger trips – each bus or rail trip a person makes in a single commute – has declined 20% since 2013. Potential reasons for ridership decline are summarized below.

Potential Reasons for Transit Ridership Decline
Drop in gas prices
Expansion of transportation network companies (e.g. Uber, Lyft, etc)
Income growth
Transit service cuts
Increased sense of danger
Unreliability of transit
Decrease in transit accessibility
Increased car ownership
Increased biking, walking and scooter use
Increased crowding
Adapted from Graehler, M., Mucci, R., & Erhardt, G. (2018). Understanding the Recent Transit Ridership Decline in Major US Cities: Service Cuts or Emerging Modes?

Some of the reasons for transit use decline such as increased biking, walking, and scooter use, actually might increase transit ridership by providing more convenient first and last mile (FLM) connections; FLM connections indicate how people travel from their homes to the first node of their trip and from the last node to their destination. Still, these FLM connections could lead to ridership decline by replacing neighborhood-level transit trips with other modes. Table 1 also notes increased car ownership as a factor: an increase in the inconvenience of transit may be compelling this population to purchase a car, and car owners are less inclined to take transit.

It is difficult to identify identify the cause and effect. Are people not taking transit because of inefficiencies, or are inefficiencies occurring because people are turning to other modes of transportation? Is the problem with inefficient linkages, or “lackage” – the absence of transit options?

Impacts on Low-Income Populations

Low-income populations are being impacted in various ways: through displacement, lack of job opportunities, and commute inefficiencies.

Extending transit lines into a community tends to increase property values due to its attractive convenience. Low-income households are moving away from transit-rich neighborhoods because of these higher rents. These households are moving into neighborhoods that are spatially isolated from transit, prompting more families to purchase cars. The 2013 Federal Transit Administration (FTA) report argues that municipalities can promote transit ridership by building high dense, mixed-use development, including affordable housing, near transit stations. Yet anytime there is investment into a community, we must be aware of the risk of displacement and recognize that affordable housing doesn’t guarantee low-income populations somewhere to live.

Photo by Alan Carrillo on Unsplash

For low-income populations, one barrier to higher paying jobs is the spatial separation between housing and jobs. This physical distance means higher transportation costs. Given that low-income households are moving into transit-poor neighborhoods, cars have become more reliable than public transportation for these communities. As more low-income families purchase cars, the 2013 FTA Report suggests the high cost of car ownership can “trap families into poverty” making it difficult to maintain a healthy quality of life. According to the H + T Index, LA County residents spends 57% of their income on average on housing and transportation while the FTA argues that spending even 45% becomes a financial burden. Households without a car or access to transit are less likely to accept jobs with challenging commutes. While Brown argues that cars give low-income populations greater access to job opportunities, it is essential to push for equitable access without the financial burden of car ownership, not to mention the climate impact of cars on the road.

As a result of declining ridership, transit agencies see decreases in revenues used to invest in transit infrastructure and services. People who depend on transit see service cuts, elimination of routes, and higher fares. This makes transit less reliable, convenient and increases the financial burden – a possible contributor to why low-income populations are purchasing cars, which in full circle, directly affects transit agencies’ ability to provide convenient services.

Addressing Lackages in the System

Transportation is a key ingredient in the overall quality of life. All community members should have equal access to job opportunities and connections to where they want and need to go. Though more and more people are choosing automobiles, we must preserve the significance of public transit through planning and design. Just this month Kansas City Area Transportation Authority became the first large U.S. city to eliminate fares to increase transportation equity.

In a recent Curbed article, Matt Tinoco, an advocate for LA Metro, writes that they are currently taking steps to maintain and improve these connections by redesigning their entire bus network by studying hard data and including public input. Buses are the largest component of their system and 20% of all ridership decreases are in the bus system. These improvements can help increase ridership and thus improve the agency’s ability to provide equitable services to those who depend on them. Additionally, ensuring affordable and low-income housing near transit corridors can help prevent the lack of equitable access, thus linking those riders to opportunities and travel connections. Other communities can follow this framework to provide the most convenient access to those who make up the largest base of riders as well as bringing in FLM connections to those who do not live directly off a transit stop so that public transportation can better serve the community.

Morgen Ruby will hold a Master of Landscape Architecture come spring of 2020. She aspires to focus her work climate action planning, particularly in the realm of transportation equity.